You’ve got to hand it to Martin Scorsese. The 69-year-old director is always trying something new. Last year he had his hand in the mystery-thriller genre with “Shutter Island” and this year, with the family adventure/fantasy “Hugo” (based on the book “The Invention of Hugo Cabaret” by Brian Selznick), he has shown us again that he is a master of cinema.
To call “Hugo” great would be an understatement. It’s not great, it’s a living, breathing enchanted entity from start to finish. It’s a wild adventure, as well as Scorsese’s love letter to early cinema. And it’s the best use of 3D and CGI this entire year.
Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson don’t just throw a bunch of visual objects in your face; they move the camera in ways that you don’t expect. In the fantastic opening sequence our hero, the scrawny orphan boy Hugo Cabaret (Asa Butterfield) --who lives within the walls of a post World War I Paris train station, where he makes sure the clocks stay in tune--runs along the boardwalk, gazing out through the holes in the massive chronometers at the busy bustling life of the train station. Then he climbs and shimmies his way through the revolving metal clock gears and slides down a tubular slide to another level, the camera quickly but deftly following him, keeping us right up there with him.
Among many things, “Hugo” is about movement. The moving gears, the smoke and fog that rises above the ground, the constant snowfall. Everything is in tune, following a rhythm, like the very clocks young Hugo tends to.
However, “Hugo” isn’t just flash. There’s a very endearing and delightful story tucked within its visual flair, a story with many complex layers. On the outside the movie is a story of the wonders, fears and dangers of childhood and growing up. When he’s not working on the clocks Hugo steals food or other supplies to fix up his automaton (a metal wind-up figure that’s used to perform some function, which his father left him when he died). He frequently has to look behind his back to check if the cruel station inspector (an amusing Sacha Baron Cohen) is there to snatch him up and take him to the orphanage.
One day he meets a cold reserved old man named Georges Meillies (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy store at the station, and his goddaughter Isabelle (an eccentric Chloe Grace Moretz who as always holds the screen every time she’s on it, even with such big stars as Kingsley). The old man literally holds the key to Hugo’s automaton and its secrets. This leads Hugo and Isabelle on an adventure to discover the mysteries that lie within the automaton and Meillies.
This brings us to the next and the richest layer of the movie. The two kids find out that Meillies used to be a silent moviemaker (Meillies is an actual person) and a true innovator, being the first person to experiment with special effects and illusions. This is what I meant by “Scorsese’s love letter to early cinema.” While learning about him, they and we the audience get a lesson in early movies from the very first (a train riding to a stop) to Harold Lloyd hanging from clock hands in the 1923 movie “Safety Last.” Scorsese is reminding us how well movies were made back in the silent era and through his movie he shows us how a scene like a train pulling into a station or a person hanging from clock hand is still a spectacular sight and also that the visual aspect of moviemaking can be stronger than dialogue. Some of the strongest character interactions in “Hugo” involve little or no dialogue, instead focusing on facial expressions and body movement, like when the station inspector tries to woo a flower vender played by Emily Mortimer.
The final piece to this intricate clockwork of a movie is the sense of finding your place. That the whole world can be viewed as a machine with every form of life functioning as a working gear, whether it’s an avant garde filmmaker or a lowly orphan. Meillies has lost his way and it takes two children to put him back in his place.
When we get to see a sampling of Meillies’ work, it’s a pure cinematic treat. You sit there in your rocking theater chair, munching on your popcorn and sipping your beverage watching the Meillies’ movie “ A Trip to the Moon,” where a rocket hits the eye of the man in the moon and think, “how on earth could someone accomplish something like that in the Twenties?” In the end “Hugo” becomes a celebration of technology. Scorsese shows us how far we’ve come and at the same time reminds us what we accomplished back then.